At The United Nations

March 22, 2015 was World Water Day at the United Nations. It also marked the final day of the (largely unheralded) International Decade For Action 'Water For Life' 2005-2015.

Back in the spring of 2005, at the invitation of United Nations staff, I designed, produced, and emceed a launch event for the United Nations Decade of Action Water For Life 2005-2015, at U.N. Headquarters in New York City.

Blessing of The Waters at the United Nations, March 2005. Photo:  Carrie Branovan

Blessing of The Waters at the United Nations, March 2005. Photo:  Carrie Branovan

The event, called Blessing of the Waters, brought together representatives from every major religion, and indigenous peoples from around the globe, to offer prayers and blessings for the world's waters.

Today, ten years later, the World Water Decade is in the rearview mirror, and I am taking stock.

Are the world's waters better off than they were in 2005?

The answer is, yes, in some cases. Especially in those cases where waterways were fortunate enough to have a strong, active base of stakeholders.

But what of the waterways without a fan base?  What about the waters not in the spotlight? Or the creeks and canals that lack the critical mass of political will needed to speed protection and restoration efforts? Are these neglected waterways doomed to languish in the shadows? Or to make only sluggish progress? Will we be forced to wait generations before they are fit for fishing, paddling, swimming?

I hope not.

Christopher Swain at United Nations Headquarters in New York City March 20, 2015.

Christopher Swain at United Nations Headquarters in New York City March 20, 2015.

Which is why I took the podium during the Peace Bell Ceremony--part of International Earth Day the UN--and spent a couple of minutes sharing my thoughts about the world's waters.

I said that although the World Water Decade was drawing to a close, I would never stop fighting for clean, swimmable water.

I pointed out that the battle for clean water was a global one, but that two of North America's dirtiest waterways are located right across from United Nations Headquarters in New York City: Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.

I explained that both of these streams were rife with every kind of contamination: from oil, pesticides, and industrial waste, to raw sewage and runoff packed with bacteria and viruses and trash.

I pledged to swim each of these waterways.

And I promised to advocate for cleanups that wouldn't stop until each of these streams were clean and swimmable. 

I admitted that this was a confronting prospect, that it was scary to think of what was in these waters, and that it was easy to feel discouraged and hopeless. I promised not to use those feelings as an excuse, but to go forward anyway, with a hopeful heart, believing that great progress is possible.

I also said that I was tired of waiting.  Tired of being told to be patient. Tired of hearing that in a generation or two, these dirty waters might be safe enough for me and my children to swim in.

A few days later, during my daughter's school play, a fifth grader quoted from the Langston Hughes poem, Democracy:

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

When I heard these words, I felt a shiver of recognition.

I cannot swim in tomorrow's river.